Seeing as Shanghai Beer Week kicks off this Friday, we caught up to Grégoire Prouvost, France-native and co-founder of imported beer boutique Cheers In, to ask some questions regarding the event, Cheers In, and the beer scene in Shanghai.
Excited for Shanghai Beer Week? What should we be looking forward to at this year’s event?
Yes! Mike [Michael Jordan of Boxing Cat Brewery], brewmaster and resident beer expert, is doing a private beer tasting from his personnal collection of rare beer. It is called Barrel Mania, on May 20th. Also very excited about the Factory 5 Beer Bash on May 18th. A great occasion to ride with a cool group of guys and stop by Boxing Cat Brewery on Yongfu Lu for good beers. But the best will be the Sinan Mansion craft beer fest on May 25th and 26th with 100 different beer brands, and live concerts. We’ll have a lot of fun there for sure!
Tell us about yourself and how you came to be in Shanghai.
I’d been regularly travelling to Shanghai since 2005 for my previous company in supply chain/ import-export but have lived year full-time for four years now. I decided to move to Shanghai to set up a retail business and that’s when I met Cédric [Bourlet] and the other partners (Alex and Sam) and came up with Cheers In. It is not original to say that Shanghai has a special energy but it is true. You can feel it instantly when you arrive and spend a couple of days here. I felt like there were lots of opportunities here and it was time to bring something new.
What inspired Cheers In?
All the founders come from the north of France (our home town is 10km from the Belgian border) and we are more used to drinking beer than wine. We wanted to do something different with a strong specialized position as you have lots of generalists on the market and strong players in C-to-C platforms. Imported beers are new products in China, consumers need to see the products, taste them, talk with someone about it. We decided to build Cheers In the Click and Mortar way, with an e-commerce website but also shops in the main cities of China. We started with Shanghai in May 2011.
Your title is “Ideas Brewer.” What does that position entail?
Cédric is the Beer Hunter, he’s hunting for new beers. I personally brainstorm ideas, mix, brew them together and come with the marketing concept. In fact it’s even more simple than that. We all have different skills, experience, roles in the project and didn’t want to have boring titles as COO, CTO or manager of bla bla, so everyone chose a cool title. We also have a beer quality controller! And someone took the “I’m a CEO…Bitch!” already.
What was the beer scene like in Shanghai when you first arrived? How has it evolved since then?
The Shanghai beer scene has been booming since 2009. You have more and more beer bars and in most of the classic bars you can now find interesting beers from Europe, US and anywhere in the world. I think that what has changed is the idea chinese consumers have about the beers. The typical light pijiu is now replaced by cool beers with a story to tell, (you have to gain expertise to really appreciate it), as well as really original things like fruit beers, chocolate stout, limited editions etc. You also have people who brew their own beer, beer boutiques and great beer delivery service!
What kinds of beers do Chinese customers gravitate toward more? Darker, lighter, amber, pilsner, lager etc? Beers from certain countries? Why is Orval, Belgian Trappist beer, so popular in Shanghai?
Some of the Chinese customers have the same reactions as the foreigners because much of them travelled the world or studied abroad for a few years. These customers are willing to find the beers they liked while they were in France, Belgium, US, Australia. But usually Chinese customers come to Cheers In to find something different from the usual Chinese beers. They try to have a new beer experience so dark, strong beers are popular as they’re usually not associated with Chinese beer culture. They are also very open to try new tastes (chocolate stout, lambic, coconut etc).
A lot of beers have stories to tell. This is the case of Trappist beers. Only 7 trappist monasteries in the world are allowed to use the Trappist label (6 of them are in Belgium and the last one is located in Netherlands). To get this label the production needs to be done or supervised by trappist monks, on the monastery site, and all the profits have to go to charity. Orval is popular because it is rare. The brewery does not have the capacity to sell a lot of bottles in China or other countries outside Europe. When you get a hand on a bottle, take your time before you finish it. No ganbei on Orval, please!
With wine it seems the Chinese market gloms onto name brands or selections from countries such as France that they associate with luxury. Do you see this same trend with beer or is it based purely on flavor?
Of course beer is associated with certain countries. Belgium for the very old culture (some of the breweries and beer recipes are more than 1000 years-old). France has also very good things that need to be discovered, the USA has an impressive range of craft beers but only few of them are in China right now, but for a lot of Chinese consumers, Germany is the first country that comes to mind for beer. For sure it is explained by the history and the fact that Germans brought beer culture through Qingdao. The highest volume of imported beers in China are still made by German brands.
The choice of consumers is not purely based on flavor. Marketing is important, as with any other product. Beer is made of brands (not vintage), year of production, the region of course, the quality of water, hops, etc. All have consequences on the taste but the brewmaster tries to keep the same taste for the same beer year after year (excepted for special releases). So it is easier for consumers to trust a brand.
Did you go the wine route and try and persuade the Chinese consumer base how well certain beers pair with Chinese dishes?
There is still a long way to go before that but we are working on it. Shanghai Beer Week will be a great occasion to have those kinds of events around town.
Your favorite beers at Cheers In?
At the moment my favorite beer at Cheers In is St Bernardus ABT12. It is a great Belgian-style Quadrupel full of complex flavours. You should take the time to try one and smell it, look at it, and drink it slowly. I think there is everything in this beer – malty, bitter, sweet. Also the story about it is great! Shortly after the Second World War, the Trappist Monastery St.Sixtus in Westvleteren was looking for somebody to commercialize their beer. They gave a license to the cheesefactory St Bernard, and the Brewery was founded. The brewmaster from Westvleteren brought along the recipes, the know-how and the St.Sixtus yeast strain. During a period of 46 years they brewed and commercialized the beers, while the monks continued to brew for themselves and sell to three pubs in the neighbourhood. In 1992 the license came to an end and since then they’ve been brewing the same beers, with the same recipes, but under a different brand name: St.Bernardus. When you know that Westvleteren regularly receives the “Best Beer in the World” awards from beer lovers community, you can imagine how this St Bernardus ABT12 tastes.
The inside of the Cheers In outlet in Wujiaochang
Favorite Chinese beer?
My favorite Chinese beer is Sinkiang Black Beer. I love the Uyghur cuisine and this beer instantly makes me think of the delicious lamb, the spices, cumin etc. I also love the TKO IPA from the Boxing Cat Brewery. It’s funny to think that IPAs (Indian Pale Ales) were originally made by the British to send to India and now they’re made in China by an American brewmaster!
Your favorite beer pairings with Shanghai food?
I really like drinking a beer on its own to really appreciate it and feel the different aromas and flavor. For tasting, beers are usually paired with cheese (trappist monks are doing there own cheese as well like in Chimay). I think I would choose a La Goudale beer which is from my region in the north of France, and would have it with the famous Shànghǎi máoxiè (Shanghai hairy crab). But you know what is rock’n roll? A big plate of chòu dòufǔ (stinky tofu) with a bottle of Bush Amber (strongest belgian beer abv 12%).
How do you see China’s beer scene evolving in the future? More boutique stores like yours, independent craft breweries？
For the independent craft breweries, there is a lot of potential but the problem is the regulations. It is sad for the moment that we are not able to drink a beer from The Brew, or Boxing Cat Brewery elsewhere than in their locations. We’d love to carry their bottles. But things may change I guess. You have more and more beer bars around the country, even the 2nd tier cities are ready for that. And of course you’ll see more and more Cheers In boutiques around the country as we are expanding offline and online. We are opening in new cities soon and are also discussing franchising our concept with potential partners.
Future plans for Cheers In?
Our goal is that every person 1M+ away from the store can get a good imported beer in less than 2 hours! We are working on it!
The plan now is the Shanghai Beer Week 2013. During the whole week we will do a very special deal on La Trappe beers (Dutch trappist beer) with a selection of 6 beers (3 Tripel and 3 Quadrupel) for 99rmb (50% off), delivered to your door. On May 25th and 26th, there is the Sinan Mansion Beer Festival, we have a booth there. It will be great to discuss with all the people who love beer in Shanghai. We’ll serve beers like Rince Cochon, Cuvée des Trolls, Mongozo Coconut and a lot more. Meet us there, we are just in front of the mainstage!
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].